by Bennett Muraskin
Discussed in this essay: Bad Rabbi and Other Strange But True Stories From the Yiddish Press, by Eddy Portnoy. Stanford University Press, 2017, 264 pages.
EDDY PORTNOY, a senior researcher and director at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, who knows Yiddish as well as anyone in his field (and has unearthed such forgotten gems from Yiddish culture as Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler’s Modicut Puppet Theater), has now scoured Yiddish newspapers published in New York City and Warsaw, the two cities with the largest Jewish populations, for stories about Jewish troublemakers, eccentrics, villains and celebrities that did not make it into the history books.
In America, a Yiddish press emerged as soon as enough Jews arrived to provide a readership, essentially in the 1870s. The papers published news, fiction, poetry, and any style of journalism from the political to the didactic to the sensational. By contrast, in tsarist Russia, which encompassed Warsaw, there were severe restrictions. There was exactly one Yiddish newspaper allowed in all of Russia from 1862 to 1874, another from 1881 to 1889, and one more in 1903. By 1908, a Yiddish daily was permitted in Warsaw, but the golden age of Yiddish press in Warsaw did not begin until the 1920s when Poland became independent. It was the Old World Jews who took lessons from New World Jews when it came to the Yiddish press.
The “bad rabbi” of Portnoy’s title is actually a khasidic rebbe from Poland who comes to New York to raise funds for his community, marries a rich Jewish widow under duress, and returns to his wife and family in Poland, only to be followed by his American wife, whom the rebbe then successfully sues for blackmail and extortion in a Polish court, which prompts her to counter- sue for bigamy. The rabbi is not so much “bad” as pathetic. Although the American wife is clearly a lying meshugene, Portnoy admires her khutspe, her “intensity and aggressiveness.”
Two chapters of the book are not actually based on the Yiddish press: the very first, which tells of a Jewish abortion “doctor” convicted of manslaughter for killing his patient, a young Jewish woman, during a botched abortion, and a more interesting chapter relating the colorful career of a 625-pound Jewish wrestler named Martin “the Blimp” Levy, who is pictured on the book’s cover (and above).
THERE ARE QUITE a few violent stories straight from the police blotter. A jilted lover bites her boyfriend’s penis. Ultra-Orthodox Jews coerce Jewish businessmen into closing down on shabbes. Khasidim from rival sects tear each other to shreds over perceived slights. Gangsters administer “rough justice” to malefactors within their midst, resulting in injury and death. Litigants in rabbinic divorce courts break out into brawls as the judges sneak out the side doors in fear and shame. Yom Kippur fights are nearly as common as Yom Kippur fasts. (Although Portnoy claims to be plowing new ground, there are many stories already translated in English about fights that used to erupt between religious and secular Jews on Yom Kippur in response to the former’s religious fanaticism and the latter’s deliberate desecration of the holiday.)
Such stories of murder and mayhem can be elucidating when placed in a broader context. Portnoy, for instance, describes an 1875 murder trial of Pesach Rubenstein, an Orthodox Jew in New York, which became a sensation in the English and Yiddish press. Rubenstein’s house servant, a young Jewish woman, was found stabbed to death in an outlying area of Brooklyn. Despite his protestations of innocence and religious devotion, he was convicted and sentenced to hang. He cheated the executioner by starving himself to death in jail. Rubenstein’s trial received more press publicity than any prior incident in American Jewish history, inciting manifestations of antisemitism that were unusual for America in that period. (Unfortunately, Portnoy cannot give us a motive for the crime, although one can guess.)
In the mayhem department, Portnoy tells us of the “tonsil riot” of 1906, in which enraged Jewish mothers besieged public schools on the Lower East Side after some school children were given free tonsillectomies, which were routine, as doctors believed intact tonsils to be a cause of throat infections. Although the school sent home permission slips, they were in English and the Yiddishe mames had no idea what they were signing. Influenced by their fear of Gentile authorities inherited from Europe and news of recent pogroms, they perceived that that New York City school authorities were cutting their children’s throats. It is not clear whether the medical procedure continued once its benign nature became known.
The best material Portnoy unearths portray unique personalities. Who knew that Naftali Herz Imber, the same man who wrote the words to Hatikvah, the anthem of the Zionist movement and later the State of Israel, lived in the U.S .as a bohemian poet with an insatiable thirst for alcohol? Or about Abraham Hochman, a Yiddish-speaking psychic and astrologer who claimed to use his powers to enable Jewish wives to find their husbands who deserted them? Desertion was, indeed, such a genuine problem among Jewish immigrants in New York that the Yiddish Forvertz tried to remedy by more conventional means, by regularly publishing a photo “gallery of missing men” to help readers track down the deadbeats. An inveterate self-promoter, Hochman parlayed his fame into a paid gig as a mind-reader and phrenologist for a Tammany Hall boss.
Reb Dan was a different type, widely considered to be one of the most beloved Jewish figures in Warsaw during the 1930s. As the shammes in Warsaw’s rabbinical court, he mediated so many disputes that “one reporter had famously announced that Reb Dan had won the Nobel Peace Prize.” A young Isaac Bashevis Singer, another reporter whose beat included the court, memorialized Reb Dan in his memoir “In My Father’s Court.”
We also learn from Portnoy that I.B. Singer’s older brother Israel Joshua was the Yiddish Forvertz’s Warsaw correspondent, writing under the pseudonym Gimel Kuper so that his reporting on the crimes and misdemeanors of the dregs of Jewish Warsaw would not detract from his status as an esteemed novelist. Eventually, he was outed by the Yiddish communist Frayhayt.
BY FAR the most fascinating figure in Portnoy’s Jewish gallery is Yitzhok Farberovitsh aka Urke Nakhalnik, a denizen of the Warsaw Jewish underworld who wrote about his experiences in the Yiddish press. His graphic stories about criminals, pimps and prostitutes were adapted for a play performed in the Yiddish theater in the 1930s. During World War II, he organized his old compatriots for anti-Nazi resistance, attacking Polish collaborators and sabotaging rail lines to the Treblinka death camp. He was captured by German soldiers in 1942. On his way to his execution, Nakhalnik was shot dead when he attacked one of his guards. Now that’s a story!
I wish Portnoy had included more characters of this caliber, or more eccentrics, rather than relishing in types he luridly describes as “lifeless, slack-jawed, knuckle-dragging sluts hanging off mouth-breathing illiterates with lumpy bodies who force hoarse blasts of laughter through grimy lungs.”
For example, how about Al Schacht, a pitcher and coach in Major League Baseball in the 1920s and ’30s who became known as its first “clown prince” for his comic antics on the field?. He once wrote: “There is talk that I am Jewish, just because my father was Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I speak Yiddish and once studied to be a rabbi and cantor. Well, that’s how rumors get started.” Was he not written about in the American Yiddish press?
Or better yet, Charles A. Levine, the first passenger to fly across the Atlantic a few months after Lindbergh. He bought a plane, hired a pilot, and took off without telling his wife and children of his plans. Upon his return to America, Levine became a great Jewish hero. He lived the life of a playboy, but soon lost his money, fell into obscurity and died a pauper. Levine’s story was definitely told in the New York Yiddish press.
With Yiddish as a written and spoken language in bad shape, along with the newspaper industry, Eddy Portnoy’s lively account of low-brow Yiddish journalism in its heyday is a welcome, if a bit unsavory, tonic.
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.